Everyone hates driving on roads that are under construction. Lanes merge in strange ways, traffic slows, and accidents happen. Building a brand new highway with three exits is a lot easier than adding two more exits to a highway that only had one. Your car is your new feature, and your gridlocked road is your CMS; you’ll encounter obstacles, slow-downs, and snafus when you introduce new features (or “cars”) to your content-managed site (or “highway”).

During ten years of making websites, I’ve managed projects on six different content management systems spanning more than 40 websites. In retrospect, I think at least half of those sites could have been maintained more easily sans CMS. Building a CMS takes time — and money. And, to put my own analogous spin on the topic, a CMS is like a washing machine for t-shirts (or “features”); it allows them to be used over and over again. Content Management Systems provide reusable templates, and reduce the time necessary to post serialized content.

Consider this: When was the last time you logged into your CMS? CMS systems are great, but none are a silver bullet. WordPress is very capable as a CMS tool for a developer, but it’s not very good for a client who doesn’t happen to also be a developer. Squarespace is a great CMS for a non-tech savvy client, but not that great for a developer.

Marketers, designers, and developers each have different needs. Let’s look at how to choose the best solution for your next website.

Four Considerations Before Committing to a CMS


1. How much control are you willing to give up?

When you integrate your website into a CMS, you’re committing to a finite structure that must fit your content (and future updates). This pattern can be a great thing if you do it right: Everything’s consistent, everything looks good, and everyone’s happy… until the CEO or marketing guy wants something unique. And then you need to hack your way into the system you’ve built. By the way, “doing it right” requires honest planning, architecture, and time.

A good example is Squarespace, which is now on version 6, only ten years after its first launch. Squarespace is a well-executed CMS that’s great for most web users, but there are trade-offs with content control. If you want a table in your content, you can’t do it through their interface; you have to insert an HTML block and code it manually. And Squarespace can’t be hooked up to dynamic data.

Regardless of which CMS is chosen, a content editor never has full control. Custom work will require a developer, which is what you were trying to avoid by integrating a CMS in the first place.

2. How often will content updates be necessary?

If your site revolves around serial content like blog posts, press releases, and videos, chances are you’ll want a system that allows you to easily add new entries. But you may not need a full-fledged CMS — something like Jekyll may suffice. For simple, conversion-oriented sites without serial content, a *ahem* content *ahem* management system is almost certainly overkill. Consider whether your site will need to be updated regularly — if not, skip the CMS in favor of a really good web developer.

Let’s not forget tools like Optimizely that change content on the page for things like A/B tests. With that in mind, do you really need to be able to edit every single title of every single section of every single widget on every single page? And, if you are tinkering at that level, who’s doing the tinkering? Developers may prefer to dive into the code rather than construct and navigate a system to “facilitate” these simple edits.

3. Have you budgeted for the up-front costs?

Whether you’re looking at open source or enterprise tools, you don’t get a CMS for free. Usually a massive expenditure is required, up-front, to integrate a site into a CMS. Not to mention that every piece of editable data adds more time to a web project.

Building a “system that lets everyone on the marketing team update content” also increases the likelihood of a broken design when verbose individuals ignore the ideal character counts. Making accommodations for edge cases takes even more time because the design implementation requires special attention to accommodate all the content that could go in there — not just what was originally designed.

4. Are you prepared for ongoing maintenance?

Implementing a CMS has ongoing costs as well. Now your entire site is run by a system, so you either need to stick with this system or hack something in. Yes, I said hack. A CMS’s architecture is based on the original designs; scaling that architecture can be tough, especially if the changes are required in a hurry.

Always try to leverage existing templates and features to meet new business requirements. When you leverage the existing toolkit, you yield the benefits you had hoped for when building a CMS. If you want to create something on your site that deviates from the established styles, you’ll need to to bring a developer back in. “Simple tweaks” have the potential to snowball into a complex integration.

Evaluate the Options and Choose Your Path

CMS, HTML Flat File, Hybrid

Here’s a quick checklist and some example (DT client) sites to help you assess if a CMS is needed on your next website projects.

You may need a CMS if…

Content Managed Website     www.daniellelaporte.com is powered by WordPress CMS

You should opt for flat HTML files if…

Fuelly does not have a CMS     Flat files only for Batterii

You should build a hybrid solution if…

A hybrid CMS can be a great solution     MEGA uses flat HTML and a blog

Making a Decision

Under certain circumstances, a CMS is a great thing to have for your site, but in many other situations, a CMS can get in the way. Consider the balance between ease for your team (whether that’s you or your developers), up-front cost to create, ongoing cost later, and how much control you’re OK with relinquishing.

In theory, a CMS is great! In practice, we must realize that a CMS isn’t the only solution; it’s one of many tools from which to choose.

Will you use a CMS in your next website build?

  • Very well thought out approach. I needed this. Great tips.

  • These are great tips, thanks for sharing this. I run into these challenges all the time. Do you have any suggestions on hybrid platforms that allow both?

    • Most CMS Platforms will allow for hybridization. In fact, DT’s site is hybrid… our blog runs on WordPress, but the “main” site is static HTML templates.

  • rey alejandro

    thanks for this! i’m making my portfolio site and i have little to no idea with cms and how to set it up but i am good enough with html css and boostrap framework. i guess i will stick with static html for know. Thanks a lot!

  • What about flat file CMS? Get the benefits of launching the MVP quickly as you say, plus the power of being editable in the browser.

  • estevan

    I think this article has finally helped me decide what I’m doing. I’m thrown off immensely at the decline in popularity of CMSs however I know popularity should not influence my business needs. I’ve wondered if others are using some alternative solutions for similar business objectives. I realize in a way they are not. I just have particular business objectives where a CMS _could_ do a fine job: regular content updates, revisions, approval process. I guess the CMS route may be the way to go.